Blessed Virgin Mary 15th August ’21 Madingley
Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 1: 46-55
You have heard me say numerous times that Trinity Sunday is the one day in the year that preachers try to avoid, and that is true. Trying to present the concept of the Trinity in all its glorious mystery in a way that inspires and is understandable, is a major challenge. But today presents a problem which is even more daunting, because the likelihood of causing offence to at least one member of the congregation is high. For today we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary, and since the time of the Reformation the amount of respect which is offered to her, or not, has been a source of controversy and acrimony. The roots of the Reformation run very deep in many Christians. There has been much misunderstanding, and the devotional traditions in the past placed her on a much higher pedestal than maybe she merited, but things are more balanced now. And it is important not to run away from the acknowledgement of her part in the development of the Christian faith, and to look squarely at what we believe, and why.
As Bishop Kenneth Stevenson said, “It is like walking across a theological minefield with your eyes closed.” For Mary was a young woman, unknown to the world, hidden away in an obscure Galilean village, but embodying in herself all that was purest and holiest in Judaism, so that she was selected by God to give birth to his Son who would be our Saviour and the Word of God for us. Yet she was very human; she herself was not God, and during Jesus’ lifetime she experienced many of the rollercoaster of emotions which human parents feel, and to an extent and depth which mercifully we never have to go through.
No doubt she would have understood that Gabriel’s words to her at the annunciation heralded the birth of the Messiah who had been sent to liberate his people. The longing for this person who would rescue them lay deeply in the hearts of all the Jewish people. When the little family went to the Temple to make the thanksgiving sacrifice for their first-born son, Simeon said to her that a sword would pierce her heart. Whether Mary comprehended the full import of Simeon’s words to her, is unlikely.
Then 12 years later, on another trip to Jerusalem, Mary, and Joseph too, went through the agony of realising that somewhere on the return journey, they had lost their son. It took 3 heart-wrenching days for them to find him, during which time the fear of whose hands he had fallen into, the imagined appalling outcomes that they might have to face, must have been swirling through their minds. Where had he been staying? Who had been feeding him? WHO has he been with?
At last they find him in the one place they hadn’t thought to look in the beginning of their frantic search. We hear Jesus’ somewhat precocious reply to their relieved and anxious questioning, “Son, we have sought you sorrowing,” as he says, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” There is an implied rebuke there; even at what appears to us to be a tender age, although it was the age when a Jewish boy attained manhood, he was aware of the work he had been sent to do, and there was an expectation that his earthly parents, especially his mother, would understand this.
At the beginning of his adult ministry, we see Mary coming to the rescue at the wedding in Cana as the wine runs out, and she knows just the person to save this embarrassing situation. Here she shows some understanding of what her son was capable of, although he clearly feels that her demands are being made rather prematurely. But later, we see scenes where Jesus’ mother and brothers come to rescue him, feeling that he needed to be taken away from the crowds to recover his equilibrium. Once again, Jesus’ words in response seem brusque, “Who are my mother and brothers? Those who do the work of my Father in heaven.”
And it’s all very well for us, some 2,000 years later, to query Mary’s lack of understanding of Jesus’ ministry. But the truth of the matter is that he was accused, rightly, of consorting with, shall we say, “the wrong sort of people.” We may recognise their neediness, and acknowledge that Jesus’ ministry was for everyone, but for his mother his behaviour and choice of companions must have been worrying to say the least. On top of which, Jesus’ words suggested that family ties were not as important as the Kingdom of God.
Then finally, she ends up standing at the foot of the cross, as her son dies in agony. It would seem that it was not just the 3 days in Jerusalem when she “sought him sorrowing”, but that that desperate process had continued through the three years of his ministry, until finally that sword predicted by Simeon pierces her heart as Jesus dies. What, she must have wondered, is happening here? Was I mistaken when I thought I heard the words of Gabriel? Did my son take a wrong turn somewhere, and was it my fault? For Mary the crucifixion seems to be the tragic culmination of a life which began with such promise, but descended into a series of perplexing statements and behaviours. But Jesus in his dying agony still was able to summon up enough breath to express concern for his mother as he called on John to take care of her, and for their relationship to become one of mother and son as he was taken away from them both by death.
Jesus does present a somewhat enigmatic figure in the Gospels, but so, in many ways, does Mary. She has to wait yet another 3 days after Jesus is taken down from the cross before her mental and spiritual agony is relieved, and the resurrection becomes a reality. But the gospels tell us nothing about her reaction to this momentous event, and we hear no more about her.
However, the early church did recognise the essential part she played in our redemption by giving her the title “theotokos” meaning “God-bearer.” The Council of Ephesus in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that gave us our creeds, recognised that this title was long-established, and used it themselves.
The importance of this title lies in that it underlines the realness of the incarnation. It came into use when some early church leaders wanted to spiritualise Jesus’ human side to the point when there seemed to be no longer any real contact for him with the earthly realm. A strong answer to that came through returning to a consideration of the place of Mary in the scheme of things.
Starting with the annunciation, the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, all the events of Jesus’ life from his conception onwards are located firmly in time and space. This first inkling of the coming of the Messiah occurs in Nazareth, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and we hear that Mary is already betrothed; all these details are very familiar to us, anchoring everything within our own experience.
However, being greeted by an angel is maybe a less common experience. First of all Gabriel tells Mary she is highly favoured, which she is unable to reply to. Then he tells her that she will soon bear a son, which elicits her response of “How?” Gabriel then tells her that her cousin Elizabeth has also been visited by the Holy Spirit, and so Mary accepts his words with an attitude of faithful trust. Reflecting on her mode of response to 3 different statements by Gabriel we see that when she is troubled, her modesty prevents her from saying anything. When a strange prediction is made about her future, she asks with gentle enquiry how it can happen. When the “what” and “how” have been explained to her, she is prepared to commit herself to God’s will, in trust. Her faith is prepared to be silent, to enquire, and to trust; a good example for all of us who come after her.
So she has an honoured place as an exemplar of faith, and the one who brought Jesus into the world. To give her a place on her own is perhaps to exaggerate her own position, but to deny her a place altogether runs the risk of denying the humanity of Jesus. As Stevenson said, it’s a minefield which we have to make our way through very carefully, but just because it’s bit of a challenge does not mean that we should not attempt to traverse it.